Remember that one time in 1975 when a UFO visited Medford, MN? The excitement made the little town briefly famous. Some 60 miles south of Minneapolis, Medford a population of less than 700, but the Medford UFO story was featured locally, on Twin Cities radio, on national television, and even on Japanese television. UFO investigators like J. Allen Hynek came to Medford. It’s one of Minnesota’s most high-profile cases.
The flashing object appeared over the small rural community Sunday evening after dark, November 2, 1975. As teenager Janet Kay sat at the dining room table doing her homework, she looked out the window of her Medford home and saw the lighted object moving slowly toward the earth. “I saw a UFO come down out of the sky,” she later told the film crew from Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of. Janet was a senior at Medford High School where she excelled in English and creative writing, talents she utilized in her role as editor of the school paper. She was active in band and sports, and she planned on pursuing a career in Journalism. She had also placed as one of the finalists for Steele Country’s upcoming Junior Miss Pageant. Reminiscing about her UFO sighting, she told the film crew, “At the time, it wasn’t scary. It didn’t frighten me when I looked out the window and saw it. But afterwards, when I realized what I had seen was unexplainable, that’s when it started to get scary.”
She wasn’t the only one in Medford who saw the object. Janet’s brother Jerry and her mother Mrs. Helen Kay saw the UFO too. Together, they watched it slowly descend out of the sky. “It was about 700 feet from the house and it disappeared behind one of the buildings,” Mrs. Helen Kay told the Owatanna People’s Press.
The darkness apparently obscured the shape of the object, but everyone saw the lights. Mrs. Kay said, “It flashed red, green and white. I was surprised when it first came down. It was quite large. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Jerry said he saw something that looked like smoke coming from the object. From their line of sight inside the house, the object disappeared behind a nearby blue shed, presumably landing in the football field beyond. The Kays got into their car to drive over and investigate. “When we got there, it was gone. Then it appeared above the trees by the hill west of Medford.” They sighted it above the trees on the hill west of Medford. It appeared to be travelling northeast.
Another Medford witness was a passenger in a car when he saw the object descending. As the driver pulled out of the driveway, the witness in the passenger seat noticed the object airborne near the blue shed. “I said, turn down here! We can maybe get closer to it … and then you could just see it real good before the trees. It was definitely right there … we saw it glide over the top of the trees. Then it was gone.”
At some point that same evening, Leona and Donald Rafdal, also of Medford, were driving south on Highway 3 coming toward town when they noticed a white flash of light that they mistook for lightening. Mrs. Rafdal jested with her husband, “Do you think it was a UFO?” He returned the joke, “Maybe it was!” Before they reached Medford, however, they saw an object hanging in the sky, beaming with red light. They agreed it did not resemble a plane or helicopter.
“The object went over Hammel’s pit and we decided to follow it. It looked like it was going east. We made the bend from the old dump, going north, and it disappeared on us,” Mrs. Rafdal said. “It appeared to be a couple hundred feet up. My husband said he thought he saw smoke coming from it.”
Lots of locals saw the lights. Reports started coming into the Medford Police Department. Steele County Sheriff’s Deputy Eldo Utpadel went out to investigate. “Of course, we had to go see what it was, you know. We didn’t dare go too quick because we were afraid those little green fellows would probably get us,” he lightheartedly told the People’s Press lest readers mistake him for a UFO nut. Despite the jokes, he admitted that he did see something in the sky. “It looked like a star when I saw it,” Utpadel said. He emphasized that he didn’t believe in UFOs; he preferred to think it might have been a conventional object like a weather balloon. The reporter for the People’s Press contacted the National Weather Service to see if they had any balloons aloft in the area. They didn’t. Besides, the weather service official said, weather balloons do not have lights.
Rufus Alexander of the Medford Police Department said he received a complaint about someone shooting off flares west of the city. After checking out the report, and finding nothing, he was returning to Medford on County Road 12 around 9:30 PM when he noticed several cars parked on the shoulder. He stopped to see what was happening. The motorists pointed out a lighted object hanging in the sky.
Like Officer Utpadel, Alexander insisted, “I’m not a believer in these things at all.” Nevertheless, he had to admit, “Sunday night it made me believe there definitely was something going on. I didn’t see the object when it was in Medford. Later, I and some county deputies were watching the object through field glasses. It was definitely some type of strange object, there’s no doubt about it. It was changing colors. When I first saw it, it was moving northeasterly and all of a sudden it seemed to stop and hang for some time. Then It took off again.”
This wasn’t the first UFO to be reported in the area that week. Philip Keeler of rural Owatonna put in a call to the sheriff’s department several days earlier to report a sighting east of Medford from the night of October 30. “At first it looked like an airplane that was real low with the landing lights on. The light got bigger. I hollered for my wife to go out and look. It disappeared behind the trees. It was like one big light. It kept getting bigger and was quite a distance away.” He called the sheriff because he wanted to know if any other reports had been made.
The police investigating the stories checked the high school football field where the Kay’s suggested the object might have landed. They were surprised to find a discolored brown patch of grass about thirteen feet square.
The AP picked up the story in the Owatonna People’s Press (November 4, 1975), and several investigators turned their attention toward Medford. The bare patch on the football field generated considerable excitement. Might there by some trace evidence left behind by a landed craft?
Dr. J. Allen Hyneck of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) arrived with a small team of investigators. Hynek was already famous from his work debunking UFOs for the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, but he had since then been persuaded that the phenomenon was real. His entourage of investigators included Ted Phillips of Sedalia, Mo., an associate of the center and international expert on physical traces; Keven Randle of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, expert investigator of livestock mutilations; Ray Warren of Minneapolis, director of New Frontiers in Space Phenomenal Research, UFO Investigations, and a professional photographer for Japanese Educational Television doing a feature story on UFOs. Twin Cities radio personality Michael Douglas tagged along too.
Despite the excitement the investigation stirred up in the small town, Hynek was not too impressed with the Medford UFO. He dismissed it as, primarily, just another case of nocturnal lights, and a “not very good” one at that.
“It is what I describe as an ‘in-between’ kind of case. Undoubtedly, a good number of people in Medford did see a red light on the night of November 2. They agree on color. Some say it was orange-red… This is what you would call a great multiple witness sighting of a nocturnal light. But it’s frustrating.”
Hynek considered it frustrating because, like the vast majority of other UFO encounters, it left behind no solid evidence other than witness testimony. By referring to the Medford sighting as an “in-between” case, Hynek meant it was someplace in-between a case not worth investigating and one worth investigating. “We are limited in funds, so we have to focus on the good [cases] and let a host of in-betweens go. At the Center [for UFO Studies] we’re looking for the really hardcore cases where a person sees something on the ground or near the ground and they’re within, say, 500 feet of it, and they have at least several minutes to observe it. Then when the thing leaves, if they can find a physical trace or residue, we’ve got something.”
It was the hope of finding a physical trace or residue that drew Hynek to Medford. He hoped the bare patch on the football field might yield some evidence that could be analyzed in a lab. Hynek’s team carefully scrutinized the discolored spot. Phillips took samples of the soil. Hynek explained, “What we’re doing, of course, is taking necessary soil samples and measuring and photographing the site. We’ll get the samples analyzed at the space technology lab in Kansas and will determine if any heat was emitted on this area and, if so, how much heat, what kind of heat and so on. Then if it shows something unusual, we’ll go to some other laboratories for it.”
But Hynek was troubled that no one had actually seen the craft land on that spot, nor could anyone state with any definitive certainty that the bare patch had not been there before the sighting. Neither could the Kays claim to have actually seen the object on the ground. Their view of the supposed landing had been obscured by the blue shed. “There seems to be no clear connections between the light and the patch on the ground,” Hynek lamented. He tried to put a positive spin on the expensive trip he had made to Medford, “This is a good field exercise, keeps us in training to so speak.” As if reverting back to his days as a consultant on the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, the astronomer suggested a prosaic conclusion to the matter, “A flare could possibly explain it.”
A few months later, when the film team from Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of arrived in Medford, they brought a police sketch artist to speak with witnesses and create a rendering of their descriptions. The object produced by the artist doesn’t look like a flare could possibly explain it.
While in the area, the television crew also visited Mellen, Wisconsin, where a whole family of witnesses had seen a landed craft outside their home a few months earlier. In retrospect, the Medford case seems better understood in the context of the local 1975 UFO flap. similar high-profile cases that had been happening earlier that same year in in places like Mellen, Ashland, and Elmwood, Wisconsin. The Medford case also shares striking similarities with sightings occurring around Algoona, Iowa (ninety miles southwest) in the fall of 1975.
The film crew from In Search Of interviewed Janet Kay and her mother Mrs. Helen Kay. They took some footage of Mrs. Kay on the football field where the discolored patch remained still visible, and they filmed Ted Phillips as he analyzed the soil samples from the patch. The analysis found nothing conclusive. Phillips did detect some “increased luminescence” in samples taken from the edge of the patch which, he suggested, may have indicated some exposure to high intensity radiation, but the soil itself offered no indication of increased radioactivity.
“If it was something from another country or something the army was putting up in the air, I wish they’d come and tell us … and not leave us sitting here thinking that it was something from some outer space place,” Janet mused on camera as she reflected on the incident.
Hynek could not rule out the possibility that UFOs like the one seen in Medford might indeed come from some outer space place. But he avoided premature conclusions about the origin of the phenomenon and its meaning. He conceded, “I started out a complete skeptic and am now fully convinced that the UFO phenomena is real. But this is a field for research. As I tell my students, if you know the answer in advance, it’s not research.”
This story is part of the Visitors 1975 series.